Should bald men have to put up with comments on their appearance from co-workers? (Photo: Susanne Kronholm via Getty Images/Johner RF)
Hair loss is far more prevalent among men than women and for some, it’s a sensitive subject. Now, an employment tribunal has ruled that commenting on someone’s baldness in the workplace is a form of sexual harassment.
The ruling – made by a panel of three men – comes after an electrician, Tony Finn, claimed he’d been sexually harassed at the factory where he worked, when he was called a “bald c**t” during a row with a manager.
Interestingly, he wasn’t so offended by the expletive, but felt discriminated against due to his appearance.
The panel compared the comments on a male’s baldness to commenting on the size of a woman’s breasts, saying baldness is “inherently related to sex”. And although this comparison has sparked some debate, it’s also made some men reflect on the interactions they’ve had in relation to their baldness at work.
Nick Chowdrey, a 33-year-old from London, started to lose his hair when he was 19 and says the decision to shave it off completely was actually “underwhelming”.
“I walked into work and expected jeers and shock, but mostly I was met with positivity, bar the one toxic masculine sales guy who made a cliché comment like ‘get into a fight with a lawnmower?’” he says. “I haven’t ever received any comments in the workplace about it since, but I expect I’m just lucky, having worked in the charity sector for the last five years where toxic masculinity tends not to be so prevalent.”
Nick Chowdrey started losing his hair aged 19. (Photo: Nick Chowdrey)
However, he has still read about the tribunal case with interest. “What I would say is that any form of making fun of someone’s appearance in the workplace is clearly harassment and should not happen, especially if coming from a boss to an employee,” he says.
“I do think that the equivalence being made to sexual comments about women is unhelpful outside of the legal context: we’re all humans, at the end of the day, and we all bleed the same. Whatever the law is, my clear opinion on this is that bosses, in their privileged position of power, should be building their employees up, not tearing them down.”
Jeremy Helm, a 37-year-old financial analyst for MWB Solutions, also thinks the publicity the tribunal is receiving is a good thing.
“I can certainly say that people seem to be more relaxed about insulting certain physical issues, ailments or limitations. People have no issue calling someone tall ‘lanky’ or someone with red hair ‘a ginger’, all used maliciously to insult someone based on a characteristic,” he says. “I’m not sure why rude names are deemed acceptable by anyone to be honest.”
Helm started “balding properly” at 28 and used to feel self-conscious about it at work. “I did used to hate it when anyone made comments when I was younger. It wasn’t a nice thing to go through,” he adds.
Today, he’s more relaxed about his baldness and will often be the first to make a joke about it if a colleague is going for a haircut. “Ironically, I go get my haircut the most, as I get bits growing around the sides of my head and nothing in the middle, so I prefer to be completely bald, as I look 10 years younger than when the remaining hairs try popping through,” says Helm, who’s based in Cambridge.
“I guess it’s about owning the joke, I used to be really self conscious and if anyone said anything I used to feel a little depressed about it. But as I got older I started to care less, I could make jokes about myself more easily and felt more relaxed.
“Settling down and getting married meant I felt more comfortable in myself. I didn’t obsess over what others thought as much.
“It’s not a laughing matter, I know if I saw a younger me, I’d try and discuss it privately with them.”
Others also use humour in relation to their baldness at work. Paul Aitken, 49, from Oxford, started losing his hair aged 20 and was sensitive about it in the early days.
“I did and still put up with light-hearted name-calling – typically ‘baldy’ or other less polite things from my colleagues – but it’s never said maliciously or with aggression,” he says. “I always take it with the humour that’s intended.”
Paul Aitken says comments are intended with humour. (Photo: Paul Aitken)
Now the chairman of a number of fintech and traditional finance businesses including Suros Capital, Suttons and Robertsons and CasaFi, and an investor in start-ups, he continues: “I’ve never let being bald affect my work life, the good-humoured teasing continues and I accept it’s just part of who I am.”
A few men who got in touch to say they’d never had any interactions at all in the workplace relating to their baldness, including Peter MacCiarrai, 45, from Westcliff-on-Sea. However, he’s twice had random women rubbing his head on a night out, which was “not entirely welcome”.
But it’s not all bad. Jordan James, a 35-year-old Londoner who works in PR for small businesses at Unlockd Marketing, says his baldness has helped build rapport with certain clients.
Jordan James has recently lost his blonde ponytail. (Photo: Jordan James)
“I’m newly bald (before this I had a blonde ponytail) and I’ve noticed that it’s actually helped my relationships with both colleagues and clients,” he says.
“Typically, being bald makes me seem older (and wiser) and I feel like I’m respected more. For many men, it’s a right of passage – it shows you’ve got some experience.”
With fellow bald male clients, it also seems to incite an instant sort of camaraderie. “It’s strengthened my relationships and rapport with them and with some, we’ve instantly bounded over our lack of hair! People like to deal with people they can relate to,” he says.
“I can’t recall a negative experience and it certainly saves on the hair dressing bill!”
For men just starting to lose their hair, hearing positive experiences can make a huge difference and Chowdrey says he’d love for more men to be openly proud about their baldness.
“I shudder every time I see a new baldness medication advertised to me in some quirky way on the tube, or on Instagram, as I don’t think treating baldness with serious drugs should be normalised. And I worry for the mental health of those men – whose self esteem has been preyed upon to sell them this treatment – who will suffer the mental health impacts of both the drugs and delaying the inevitable loss of their hair,” he says.
“But the fact is, this is an extremely emotional and sensitive area for many men, and I’m happy if those not yet in ‘bald nirvana’ feel their dignity is more protected by this tribunal decision.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.